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Between remembering and forgetting: the Shoah in the era of cultural amnesia
Johann Baptist Metz
By situating the Shoah between remembering and forgetting Johann Baptist Metz helped us realize that we live in an era of cultural amnesia - an age in which the pain caused by remembering is shut out of humanity’s cultural memory. After indicating that cultural amnesia rests on several foundations which include Christian theology, modern science and contemporary philosophy, he spoke of the need for an “anamnetic” culture - a culture of memory which resists this contemporary triumph of amnesia.
Nonetheless, there is something remaining even when all wounds have seemingly closed. What remains is hard to describe. It is an unusual feeling of something missing that resists the complete assuaging of the pain of remembering, whether “purely theoretically,” psychologically, aesthetically, in rituals of memory, or even “religiously.” What is it? This “something missing” in the present is least understood when it is ascribed to a typical sensitivity of the older generations, as is most often done. It is much rather the case, in my opinion, that the younger generation exhibits precisely this sense of something missing. It fuels the skepticism of the young, their indifference, at times their anger towards “the” experience, “the” point of view, “the” lesson of history which the older generation has offered them, has imposed on them, and has elevated to the canon of normality. What is most remarkable for me about the recent discussion in Germany of Daniel Goldhagen and his book subtitled Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust1(1) is that the practically unanimous and - according to the criteria of professional historiography - fully correct critique of the experts has nonetheless failed to soothe the upset of so many younger people over the magnitude of the guilt involved.
Being mindful of the suffering of others remains a fragile category in our time, a time in which human beings in the end are of the opinion that it is only with the sword of forgetting and the shield of amnesia that they can arm themselves against the latest waves of the history of suffering and evil deeds: yesterday Auschwitz, today Bosnia and Rwanda, and tomorrow? But this forgetting is not without consequences.
For many, Auschwitz certainly has long since disappeared beyond the horizon of their memories. Yet no one can avoid the anonymous consequences. The theological question after Auschwitz is not only: Where was God at Auschwitz? It is also: Where was humankind at Auschwitz? What has always particularly touched and troubled me about the situation “after Auschwitz” was the affliction, the hopelessness of those who survived this catastrophe - so much silent misery, so many suicides! Clearly these people were shattered by despairing of human beings, by that which human beings are capable of toward one another. This catastrophe vastly lowered the metaphysical and moral threshold of shame among human beings; it injured the bonds of solidarity between all those who bear a human face. Only those without memory survive something like this; or those who have already successfully forgotten that they have forgotten something. One cannot sin randomly at the expense of humankind. Not only the individual human being, but also the idea of human beings and of humanity can be injured. Only a few connect the current crisis of humanity with the Shoah, for example with the so-called crisis of values, the increasing deafness to demands for “greatness”, the crisis of solidarity, etc. Isn’t this all a vote of non-confidence against human beings and their morals?
Not only the superficial history of the human species is real; there is also a deep history, and it can be wounded through and through. Don’t the contemporary orgies of violence and rape reap the benefits of the normative force of the factual? Don’t they, behind the mask of amnesia, break down the original trust of civilization, those moral and cultural reserves that ground the humanity of human beings? How exhausted are these reserves? Are we witnessing perhaps the end of the paradigm of humanity to which we have been historically accustomed until now? Could it be that human beings in the grip of cultural amnesia have lost not only God, but also have increasingly lost themselves, in so far as they have lost what previously was emphatically known as “humanity”? What remains, therefore, when we have repeatedly closed all wounds? When cultural amnesia is complete? What remains? Human beings? Which human beings? The appeal to “humanity” is itself highly abstract. It frequently has its source in a naively optimistic anthropology that has long ago lost sight of the problem of evil and of a view of human history from the vantage point of theodicy.
In order not to allow the pain of history, the pathos of memory, to evaporate in this time of cultural amnesia we need the contrary power of that which I have termed anamnetic culture. Religion, in its essence, is characterized by this anamnetic culture. It has its first home in the monotheistic root religion of Judaism. Therefore “the mass murder of the European Jews and Hitler’s attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, at least in Europe, can be seen as an unparalleled and unprecedented attack upon the cultural memory of humanity, as the murder of memory in the scale of millions (memory-cide), if this term is appropriate. Nowhere in the world was memory,
as religious and cultural force, so fully enfleshed in a human collective as in the Jewish people from Moses to Moses Mendelssohn and beyond.”
This resistance to cultural amnesia finds an ally not only in religion. Religion finds assistance in a body of literature that teaches us to see the scenery of history through the eyes of the victims, and in art that comprehends and expresses itself as the visualization of the memory of the suffering of others. In addition, we should mention here cinematic art works that call to mind the situation of pain and guilt in a way that the objective lens of scientific historicization cannot achieve. All of these arts have an essence that “bears a grudge.” They bear down upon us, who are enamored of forgetting, with the pain of remembering. If we take things very exactly, there is for us no time “after” the Shoah in the way that there can be a time “after” Hitler and “after” Stalin. (Sie alle haben buchstäblich ein “nachtragendes” Wesen. Sie tragen uns, den ins Vergessen Verliebten, den Schmerz der Erinnerung nach. Genau besehen gibt es deshalb für uns eigentlich keine Zeit “nach” der Shoah, so wie es etwa eine Zeit “nach” Hitler und “nach” Stalin gibt.) (2)
Prof. Dr. Johann Baptist Metz was full professor of Fundamental Theology at the University of Münster from 1963 to 1993. Since 1993 he is visiting professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University of Vienna in Austria. Prof. Metz’s presentation was translated from German to English by Leo J. Penta.
1 - New York: A. Knopf, 1996.
2 - H. Weinrich, Lethe: Kunst und Kritik des Vergessens, München, 1997, p. 232.